Well, you can’t have missed the big news this week. In spite of challenges from an education select committee, the Dallas police department, a mother who cares more about the future than you and, of course, JezWeCan, it’s Flaviu the lynx who’s been keeping children and the elderly awake in sleepy Devon. Yes, we’re under siege down south, and all your fancy London frappuccinos and multiculturalism can’t help us. Doomed, we are. Doomed.
In case you’re a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party and thus have had other things on your mind, the story goes like this. Dartmoor Zoo received a lynx this week, only for it to quickly chew through its enclosure and go AWOL on Thursday. The initial coverage was apocalyptic in its severity: “To what extent has the price of Chinese steel affected Flaviu’s escape plans?” “Is it true that a hoard of extremist literature was found in Flaviu’s enclosure?” “Can you confirm or deny reports that Flaviu may have taken a small child as a bargaining tool?” I jest, but not much. I was, given the grave reporting on BBC Spotlight, momentarily surprised to notice the journalist was not wearing a flak jacket. I mean, they closed the zoo and had a police helicopter out – this was Devon’s answer to The Fugitive.
The next day Spotlight reported that the lynx had been located. After retweeting this the Press Association got in touch with me to find out more. Unfortunately, in response to what I can only assume was the PA’s mistaken belief that I’d replied sarcastically, they’ve since deleted their question.
Now, many of us enjoy the parochialism of local news, the mock solemnity of the provincial grandiose. These small things do matter, but are often presented in a manner more befitting Frank Spencer than Frank Underwood: “Clare Balding visits North Devon”; ‘Park gets new bench”; “Lawn trimmed”. And so that age old question about the extent to which a media outlet reports, makes and influences the news and thus its readership’s opinions perhaps is of greater consequence in rural backwaters, where the time often passes slowly and pleasingly, but also frustratingly.
Ask teachers in these green and pleasant lands what holds their students back and many, if not all, will point to a lack of aspirations, low expectations and claustrophobic horizons. Ilfracombe, the coastal town in which I first taught, sits at the bottom of a huge hill which mirrors the attitudes of so many there: why work at Tesco (half-way up the hill) when you could work at Lidl (bottom of the hill) instead? It was literally as if the A361 hid some kind of aspirational forcefield, a kind of Planet Krikkit road on which only tourists and teachers could travel in both directions. Perhaps that’s why the school faired so poorly as well, sitting, as it does, next to Tesco: the castle on the hill was how the locals referred to us – a deflector shield seemed to be the reality.
And where would children go during half-term? If anywhere it was Barnstaple, all of 12 miles away. Specifically the shopping centre, Green Lanes. “Green Lanes!”, they’d all shout if I mentioned it. “I went there at Easter, Sir!” And in the summer? Exeter. Yup, still in Devon.
At Torquay Academy, where I now teach, there’s a constant focus on looking beyond the horizons, which are dominated by either the granite and heather of Dartmoor or, again, the sea. And it’s tough. It’s tough to persuade children who know no better that there’s something else and it’s out there, especially when they think that where I live – a twenty-minute drive every morning – is really far away. “What, you come from there? That’s well far! Why don’t you move to Torquay?”
And so we have information all over the school about various universities and professions and successful people from Torquay. We even have all Y7s photographed in caps and gowns, calling them the Class of 202x, the year of their graduation: we try to make abnormal normal, the alien an expectation. I noticed Michaela do a similar thing with their lunch-time discussions, focussing on a future which many would not have previously even been aware of. We can’t say if it’s successful yet, but the school certainly feels different to my first, as if children really do want to find that something else beyond those immediate horizons.
We often have to be, and are at Torquay, some of the last bastions of a world of culture and opportunity. That’s why it’s so important to high expectations and energy, because the small towns and villages our children grow up in might not have those. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing on its own – I grew up on the actual moor and have turned out alright – but if we aren’t constantly banging on about the rest of the world then it’s quite possible that many children just won’t know about it. Or maybe children in rural and coastal schools need to take a leaf out of Flaviu’s book?
I realise, of course, that there are inner-city children who have similarly small horizons, though theirs are blocked by concrete and steel. I’ve met children from London and Cardiff and Birmingham who’ve never seen the sea, never met an animal that isn’t a cat or dog and think that milk just “comes in cartons”.